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Could Fifth Ward students be relocated amid air quality concerns? School Board Executive Committee votes to conduct a feasibility study

RESERVE — With Fifth Ward Elementary at the forefront of air quality concerns, members of the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board recently made a move to examine the feasibility of transporting nearly 500 students who attend the school to another site within the district.

The School Board’s Executive Committee — comprised of Board President Patrick Sanders, Sherry DeFrancesh and Ali Burl — voted last week to direct administration to conduct a study to look into the feasibility of moving students out of Fifth Ward Elementary.

According to a statement to L’OBSERVATEUR, the feasibility study would look into the financial impact of such a move and determine how to address the matter with the court system in compliance with the district’s desegregation order.

Located at 158 Panther Drive in Reserve, Fifth Ward is in close proximity to Denka Performance Elastomer, a petrochemical plant known to emit chloroprene, a chemical used in the production of a weather-resistant, synthetic rubber called neoprene.

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency released findings from a 2010 National Air Toxics assessment identifying chloroprene as a “likely carcinogen.” The assessment determined the maximum safe level of chloroprene to be 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter, while air monitoring at Fifth Ward Elementary revealed much higher levels.

According to Jennifer Boquet, communications expert for St. John School’s, the Executive Committee’s decision is only a recommendation and has not been approved by the full School Board.

Ali Burl said a potential move would include a lot of factors, including a rezoning of the school district. It also leaves the question of whether any school site in the parish is deemed safe by expert standards.

“Zones 708 and 709 were found to have the highest levels,” Burl said. “In those zones, we have not just public schools, but private and parochial schools in a one mile radius of the Denka plant. We also have to take into account, if we close the school down, where would be a permissible location? There are people saying the only permissible level is zero and that no school in the parish is safe. We’re getting conflicting information in regards to it.”

However, Burl said it is important to move forward with the feasibility study for the welfare of the children. While there is not a definite timeline for the feasibility study, he is hopeful results will be complete or progressing toward completion at the time of the September meeting.

“It’s our job ultimately to educate the children,” Burl said. “The school was not involved when a deal was made to reduce the levels by 85 percent. That would be the parish and the state. We weren’t involved in that agreement, but we are trying to assure the parents that are sending their kids to school that we are doing everything in the best interest of the students.”

Concerned Citizens of St. John Founder Robert Taylor said the committee’s decision has instilled some hope in those who have fought against chloroprene emissions since 2016.

“I understand that they are seriously considering that now, and I’m very grateful to them,” Taylor said. “I think it should have been done a long time ago, but if they are doing it now, I’m certainly grateful that they are considering it.”

Next month, Taylor will hop on a plane to take his second trip to Tokyo, Japan, where Denka Performance Elastomer is headquartered. He was not permitted to speak to company leaders during his first trip earlier this summer, though he is hopeful increased local and international support will make for different results in Japan this time around.

“We’re doing that knowing it’s the people here who are responsible for our health and safety that should be on the frontlines,” Taylor said.

On March 12, the St. John School Board addressed chloroprene safety with three letters requesting action from Koki Tabuchi, president and chief operating officer

Denka Performance Elastomer, LLC; Dr. Chuck C. Brown of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and Dr. Jimmy Guidry of the Louisiana Department of Health.

The letters did not receive a response, according to Boquet.

Denka Performance Elastomer initiated a continuous improvement program in 2018 to review emission and reduce them where feasible. This has prompted 47 improvements thus far, including process, equipment and work practice changes.

“This is a core part of Denka Performance Elastomer’s environmental stewardship, which has been a priority since Denka Performance Elastomer assumed ownership of the LaPlace facility in late 2015,” spokesperson Jim Harris said in a July release. “Denka Performance Elastomer has achieved an 86 percent reduction in chloroprene emissions compared with actual emissions, exceeding the goal outlined in a voluntary administrative order of consent (with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality).”